What’s happening? One thing you might notice in yourself or others when under pressure and feeling stressed is that your breathing becomes shallow and faster. Shallow breathing brings less oxygen into the lungs, but at the same time your racing heart is beating away, pumping oxygenated blood to your major muscles in anticipation of and readiness for some immediate action that will change the stressful situation that you perceive you are experiencing (fight, flight or freeze).
The stress reaction is your sympathetic nervous system responding to the perceived presence of imminent danger: faster heartbeat, increased blood pressure, rapid breathing, butterflies in the stomach, perhaps?
Now, if immediate evasive action is required, then you’d be forgiven for thinking that surely we need more oxygen rather than less, so why does our breathing become shallow?
One explanation is to do with the vagus nerve, which is connected to all the major organs in the body and is involved in ‘switching’ them on and off in response to stress. When we perceive a situation to be highly stressful (but not one involving being shocked and startled, which involves other autonomic reactions), the vagus nerve actually slows down our heart rate, circulation and organ function. Our visible vital signs give the appearance of us being dead.
‘Playing dead’ is a useful survival technique that many mammals still use today to conserve their energy and offer up minimal resistance to an attacking predator. We humans retain an extreme version of it, that some people succomb to in the face of shock: it’s called fainting.
How to make the most of this technique? Practise your breathing techniques to bring calm and stillness into your life. One of those truly ‘life-changing’ books that I strongly recommend reading is Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor (a Sunday Times bestseller, and so definitely available ‘in all good bookshops’). In it, Nestor offers and explains several breathing techniques that can bring about different physiological and psychological states.
You don’t need an ‘A’ level in Biology or to be a scientist to benefit from this book. It’s packed with real examples, some dating back thousands of years, along with case studies of the professional people and organizations that practise these techniques. Here are two of my favourites:
Nadi Shodhana – alternate nostril breathing – improves lung function, lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, and reduces the sympathetic stress reaction. It’s an effective technique to practise before a meeting or any other perceived stressful event, or before restful sleep.
It involves inhaling through one nostril, then exhaling through the other. Believe it or not, each nostril has a different effect on your physiology (“here comes the science…”).
Here is the step-by-step technique:
Box Breathing – a technique used by the US Navy Seals to help them stay calm and focused. I’ve used this technique successfully during a brief bout (excuse the pun!) of mental unwell-being, when I routinely would awake at 2.30 am with images of dread and experiencing palpitations. Here’s what I did – it’s so simple and the result was quick and effective enough to help me fall asleep again:
And if you want to avoid the midnight terrors and get off to a good night’s sleep from the moment your head hits the pillow, then extending the duration of the exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system more strongly. At step 3, extend your exhale to a count of 6, followed by a hold (step 4) of just a count of 2.
Coming up in Day 2: Be Aware!